Athens, Georgia, just voted to decriminalize minor pot possession, replacing the threat of prison time with a $35 fine.
Last week, Athens-Clarke County commissioners approved an ordinance that reclassifies minor cannabis possession as a civil offense. This new rule reduces the fine for possessing under an ounce of cannabis to $35 and removes the possibility of prison time. Possession of over an ounce is still considered a felony, though, and anyone caught selling weed will also face serious charges.
The new ordinance is a huge improvement over Georgia's statewide cannabis laws, which class minor possession as a misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail. State cops are generally more than eager to enforce these laws to the letter, even going so far as to arrest over 70 people at a party for possessing under an ounce of weed between them.
Progressive lawmakers have tried to reform the state's outdated prohibition laws, to little effect. With no state-level relief in sight, Atlanta, Savannah, Tybee Island, and several other cities and counties have all enacted their own local decriminalization ordinances. Athens just joined that list, but the county's $35 fine seems to be the lowest in the whole state. Other cities’ decriminalization ordinances still impose fines ranging from $75 up to $500 per offense.
Athens now has the least draconian weed laws in all of Georgia, but county commissioners actually wanted to go even further. The original version of the ordinance would have reduced the possession fine to only $1, but the fine had to be bumped up to $35 to comply with the state mandatory minimum surcharge. Most of the revenue from these fines goes to state cops, but the county law library also gets a cut.
City Commissioner Jesse Houle was also advocating for a commission-defined option (CDO) that would limit the use of cannabis as probable cause. This option would have prevented cops from using the odor of weed as an excuse to conduct a search. Cops would also have been blocked from using a misdemeanor marijuana bust as grounds to investigate a person for other potential crimes.
Ultimately, the commissioners who supported the CDO realized that they didn't have enough support to ensure that it would pass. So instead of risking the fate of the entire ordinance, they chose to drop the CDO and try to pass the decriminalization provision on its own. One commissioner did vote against the ordinance, citing outdated gateway drug myths, but the remaining 8 commissioners were wise enough to approve the reform.
And although the CDO was axed from the decriminalization ordinance, Houle said he hopes that the commission will revisit the idea. “I'd like to see us find a way forward on that, perhaps in the future. Ideally, in the near future,” he told the Athens Banner-Herald. “I think there's more work to be done, to maybe do that in a more thoughtful and even perhaps more effective way."
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